Ghosts of Auschwitz hover over new science

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 January, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 January, 1996, 12:00am

The Race Gallery: The Return of Racial Science by Marek Kohn Jonathan Cape $306 SINCE the Cold War ended, a multitude of vicious tribal wars have sprung up throughout the world. The years of slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda have given us a new term in the lexicon of human folly: ethnocentric nationalism.

Under the new dispensation, conflicts, it seemed, would no longer be driven by the clash of political philosophies. What mattered now was blood. On what side of the dividing line you stood depended on your parents. Children were attacked by mortar in Europe, by machete in Africa, but the thought behind the deed was the same.

It is Marek Kohn's argument that violent racial prejudice does not simply spring from nowhere. The evil ideology of the Nazis in Germany was not an aberration in the thought of Western man. Instead, it is seen as the last stop on the line of what was then a respected branch of science that originated with Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton.

Galton believed that human beings could be improved if different sections of the population bred at different rates. It was not much of a step from there to try to classify the different types or races of man.

In the final third of the 19th century, scientists measured the facial dimensions of some 25 million Europeans. The angle of the nose to the forehead, the ratio of the width of the head to its length, all were considered vital signs of a person's racial character - and their destiny. The railway journey to Auschwitz beckoned.

Kohn tells us how scientists, after the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, turned anti-racist, with anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists and geneticists all keen to disprove the ideas that had caused the world such misery.

The homo sapien, they said, was too subtle an animal to be measured by his or her bones. They endorsed new ways of measuring the variety of human beings, such as the prevalence of different types of protein in the blood. Scientists almost universally agreed that it was a crude barbarism to try to classify man into different racial sub-types.

But Kohn argues that 50 years after World War II ended, that paradigm is under threat by scientific advances. Genetic science has forged ahead so far it is now possible to identify the genes which cause many of the diseases afflicting humanity.

But what happens, asks Kohn, if a genetic researcher claims to discover the 'genius gene' which makes people more intelligent than others? And what if some groups have this gene and some do not? He says the scientists undertaking genetic research seem to be unaware of the implications of what they do. Some scientists in the United States have tried to find a gene in black Americans which makes them more disposed to commit violent crime.

Science, Kohn says, does not operate in isolation and ordinary people will be disturbed by the implications of future research. But Kohn, sadly, is not the man to warn us of the dangers.

For much of the book he embraces a leaden prose style copied directly from the obscure scientific journals; the text is clogged with scientific jargon. Unfortunately, that is the least of the flaws.

The focus of this book is unremittingly European. Given his Eastern European background, Kohn can be forgiven some of his bias. But this work tends to suggest that the only racial problems humanity faces are those encountered by gypsies in Slovakia.

Kohn cannot assume Europeans alone are capable of cruelty against another race on an industrial scale. What about the Japanese Imperial Army's scientific research establishments in World War II which used Chinese people as guinea pigs? Kohn's argument is that racial prejudice is supported and strengthened by research carried out in the name of science. If that is so, then what were the scientific well-springs of the cruelty inflicted by the Japanese in war-time Asia until 1945? What is the scientific basis for the Khmers of Cambodia? Who were the intellectuals who inspired the Tutsis and the Hutus to chop each other to pieces in Rwanda? If science did not have a hand in these racial conflicts, where does that leave Kohn's argument?